Ancient History & Civilisation


The Road to Nowhere


It was said that when Hannibal was asked whom he considered to be the greatest commander that had ever lived, he put only Alexander the Great above Pyrrhus, king of Epirus.1 His explanation was that not only had Pyrrhus been a master military tactician, but ‘He possessed, too, the art of winning popularity, to such an extent that the nations of Italy preferred the rule of a foreign king to that of the Roman people who had so long held the foremost place in that country.’2

Hannibal’s wooing of the Greeks of southern Italy placed him very much within the Pyrrhic tradition. As well as offering obvious strategic advantages (through its relative proximity to North Africa and thus also to potential Carthaginian reinforcements), Greek southern Italy must surely have held great cultural allure for one carefully educated in Hellenistic mores but hitherto consigned to the ‘barbarous’ fringes of the Greek world. Yet if Hannibal had spent a little longer studying the history of Pyrrhus’ Italian escapade, he might better have understood the difficulties which swiftly arose between the cities of Magna Graecia and the Epirote interloper. Pyrrhus was not the first Hellenistic adventurer to have found that the warm welcome extended to him on his arrival in southern Italy had quickly evaporated. In 334 BC the citizens of Tarentum had appealed to Alexander, king of Epirus, uncle of Alexander the Great, to protect them from the unwelcome attentions of local Italian tribesmen, but it had soon become clear that Alexander himself was a greater threat to Tarentine autonomy than those he had been summoned to fight, and Tarentum was saved from Epirote subjugation only by the king’s untimely death.

The southern Italian cities had also hailed Pyrrhus as a great defender in their fight against Rome, but relations had again quickly soured. After two dazzling victories against the Roman army, Pyrrhus decided that he wanted to be more than a mere hired hand, and tried secretly to negotiate a deal with the Romans which proposed that Italy be split between them, with him as ruler of Magna Graecia. The Romans, understanding the immense strategic importance of the region, and perhaps sensing that the danger presented by this brilliant but fickle general would fade away, firmly declined his offer. As Peter Green has observed, ‘What the locals wanted was a professional general who stuck to his commission; what they got, as with Alexander of Epirus, was an ambitious conquistador, and, worse, this time one who proved no match for the opposition.’3 After the previous experience of self-proclaimed Hellenistic ‘saviours’ in the guise of a new Heracles, it was hardly surprising that the cities of Magna Graecia did not immediately flock to Hannibal’s banner.

By the end of 216, however, an opportunity to extend Hannibal’s influence in southern Italy suddenly presented itself. The wealthy Campanian city of Capua had long been a key Roman ally in the region, and enjoyed the various rights of Roman citizenship as well as the privilege of maintaining its own magistrates. Indeed, many of its elite had close ties with the Roman Senate, often through intermarriage, and a considerable number of the city’s young men were serving in the Roman army.4 With Hannibal now ensconced further north, however, it appears that a number of the ruling elite considered defecting to the Carthaginian cause. Several considerations seem to have influenced their decision. First, worries about the security of the city and its prosperous agricultural hinterland must surely have increased with the news of the disaster at Cannae, and no doubt been further exacerbated by the return home of the Italian prisoners released by Hannibal to spread the news of the Carthaginians’ triumph over Rome and generosity to the Italians. Second, there was resentment at the burdens and obligations that an alliance with Rome brought, including the commitment to supply troops for the Roman army, the payment of tribute, and the presence of Roman military officials in the city. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sections of the Capuan elite appear to have envisioned the restoration both of their previous hegemony over Campania and of lands conceded to the Romans.5

The final break came when a Capuan delegation to Rome voiced their concerns about the deployment of 300 of their well-born youths to the Roman army in Sicily. The Roman consul Varro treated their complaint dismissively, and then warned them that they were now effectively on their own, because of a lack of Roman men and resources to protect them. The pro-Carthaginian members of the Capuan delegation then had little trouble persuading their colleagues to approach Hannibal, and an agreement to hand the city over to him was swiftly reached. In exchange for their support, Hannibal agreed that the Capuans would be allowed to keep their own government and laws. In addition, they would not be forced to undergo military service against their will.6

The Capuans then returned home, and the rebellion began. All the Roman officials and private citizens in the city were seized and confined in a bathhouse, where they subsequently expired owing to the extreme heat.7 For Hannibal, Capua was a major catch, and he clearly hoped that its defection would prompt other cities swiftly to follow suit. It was probably for that reason that the Carthaginian general was so generous towards his new allies. According to Livy, Hannibal entered Capua in triumph, and in an address to the Capuan Senate made the ambitious promise that the city would soon be the capital of all Italy, with even Rome subordinate to it.8 The vast majority of the people and Senate now lent their weight to the Hannibalic cause. While we cannot know the precise basis of the new alliance, only promises as extravagant as those preserved in Livy can have convinced the Capuans to turn against Rome. The dire consequences of defeat must surely have been recognized.

A few Capuans, however, remained unhappy with the new alliance. At a dinner held in his honour, Hannibal was nearly the victim of an assassination attempt by the son of Pacuvius Calavius, one of the leading citizens and a chief supporter of the rebellion, who was only at the last minute dissuaded from carrying out the murder by his father.9 Another dissident, Decius Magius, who had strongly opposed the new pact on the basis of the precedent of Pyrrhus, was arrested and brought in chains before Hannibal. When ordered by Hannibal to defend himself, however, the feisty Magius refused to do so, citing the very terms of the treaty agreed between the general and the Capuans, which guaranteed the latter’s freedom from outside intervention. To avoid further embarrassment, Magius was dragged to a ship bound for Carthage with his head covered, thus preventing his shouts rousing up his fellow citizens against their new allies.10

While Hannibal now had a major ally in southern Italy, the alliance had come at some cost. The removal of Roman domination was an immediate motivation for Capua’s defection, but broader objectives were the maintenance of the city’s political autonomy and the restoration of its traditional authority over the whole of Campania. Indeed, the Capuan desire to be recognized as the dominant city in the region is wonderfully illustrated in the minting of a substantial amount of contemporary local coinage which represents the city as a major, independent power.11 While Capua was willing to accept Hannibal as the last great bulwark against the encroaching power of Rome, it was willing to do so strictly on its own terms, and only while the alliance accorded with its own regional ambitions. Hannibal had thus been forced to retreat from his promise of Italian liberation in order to ensure the loyalty of a crucial ally. By publicly addressing the issue of Capuan regional hegemony, furthermore, Hannibal had ensured that other Campanian cities were now unlikely to lend him their support. Indeed, subsequent events such as Capua’s takeover of the neighbouring city of Cumae, and Hannibal’s handing over of the captured city of Casilinum, must only have compounded their fears. Although some smaller allies of Capua did join the revolt, the majority of cities in Campania–such as Nola, Naples, Puteoli and Cumae–did not. As Michael Fronda has recently remarked, ‘This pattern suggests that long-standing local intercity bonds and rivalries persisted under the veneer of Roman rule and surfaced when Hannibal suspended the mechanisms of Roman rule that suppressed them.’12 Once more the dreams of a foreign general were set to founder through the complex array of agendas that made up the political landscape of southern Italy.

Some cities were now taken by force, but others–most notably Nola –managed to withstand a number of Carthaginian assaults. Livy explained that Hannibal’s troops quickly became soft and ill-disciplined once they were stationed in the comfort of Capua, rather than under canvas in the field.13A more credible problem was that, in his anxiety to win over the Capuans, Hannibal had absolved them of any obligation to provide him with troops, which left him with a serious recruitment problem. Furthermore, those who did enlist had neither the experience nor the skill of his precious core of African, Spanish and Celtic troops.14 This lack of manpower would be further compounded when his brother Hasdrubal, who had been instructed to leave his base in Spain and take his army to Italy, was in 216 heavily defeated by a Roman army under the joint command of the brothers Gnaeus and Publius Scipio at Hibera near the river Hiberus. Hannibal was now compelled to ask the Carthaginian Council for reinforcements via his brother Mago, whom he had dispatched to North Africa earlier that year.

Arriving in the Carthaginian Council, Mago dramatically emptied on to the floor a huge pile of gold rings taken from the thousands of dead Roman cavalry who had fallen at Cannae. He then gave an understandably upbeat account of the previous two years of the war, before concluding with a request for fresh troops, supplies and money. His words had the desired effect, for the vast majority of his audience reacted with jubilation. Indeed, one Barcid supporter could not resist a barbed jibe at their old opponent Hanno, mockingly calling for the one Roman senator in the Carthaginian Council to comment.15 Hanno, however, was far too experienced a political campaigner to be cowed into silence. In a measured but caustic response, he examined the fragile foundations on which Hannibal’s great victories had been built:

‘But even now, what is it that you are rejoicing at? “I have slain the armies of the enemy; send me troops.” What more could you ask for if you had been defeated? “I have captured two of the enemy’s camps, filled, of course, with plunder and supplies; send me corn and money.” What more could you want if you had been despoiled, stripped of your own camp? And that I may not be the only one to be surprised at your delight–for as I have answered Himilco [a pro-Barcid Carthaginian councillor], I have a perfect right to ask questions in my turn–I should be glad if either Himilco or Mago would tell me, since, you say, the Battle of Cannae has all but destroyed the power of Rome and the whole of Italy is admittedly in revolt, whether, in the first place, any single community of the Latin nation has come over to us, and, secondly, whether a single man out of the thirty-five Roman tribes has deserted to Hannibal.’ Mago answered both questions in the negative. ‘Then there are still,’ Hanno continued, ‘far too many of the enemy left. But I should like to know how much courage and confidence that vast multitude possess.’16

Hanno followed up this stinging inquisition by asking if the Romans were now suing for peace. Clearly savouring Mago’s negative response, Hanno retorted that it was clear that the war was far from won. Despite the obvious power of his words, however, the Council voted to send Hannibal a force of 4,000 Numidians and 40 elephants, as well as 500 talents of silver.17

The situation on the island of Sicily was now beginning to look favourable. At Syracuse, the death of Rome’s loyal ally Hiero and the subsequent ascension in 215 BC of his teenage grandson Hieronymus to the throne had presented an opportunity for the Carthaginians.18 Under the influence of pro-Carthaginian advisers, the young king had made friendly overtures to Hannibal, and the latter promptly sent two of his officers of Syracusan origin, the brothers Hippocrates and Epicydes, to Sicily to negotiate an alliance.19 While Hieronymus was soon dramatically assassinated, and a pro-Carthaginian coup in Syracuse was suppressed, Hippocrates and Epicydes were nevertheless elected to the city’s council.20 As the cities of Sicily wavered between support for Rome and support for Carthage, the brothers used their position to foment anti-Roman feeling among the Syracusan army and citizenry (as well as elsewhere on the island), and were eventually elected as the city’s generals.21

A Roman army immediately invaded Syracusan territory and set up camp at the city’s walls. The Roman general Marcellus then demanded that the Syracusans immediately hand over the brothers, accept back the pro-Roman politicians who had fled, and restore the previous pro-Roman government. With his ultimatum rejected, Marcellus had little option but to attempt to capture the city, and when an initial assault in the winter of 213 failed, a siege that was to last for more than a year began.22

The situation would further improve for the Carthaginians when a considerable number of other Sicilian cities also rebelled against Rome in 213, no doubt encouraged by the arrival of a 30,000-strong Punic army on the island.23 On Sardinia, by contrast, a rebellion in support of Hannibal was swiftly suppressed.24

In Spain, the Scipio brothers were enjoying some success against the well-established Carthaginian forces.25 First they had managed to prevent Hasdrubal from leaving the peninsula to lend support to his brother Hannibal in Italy by inflicting a heavy defeat on his forces at Hibera in 216.26 And, despite the arrival of reinforcements led by Mago (reinforcements originally earmarked for Italy), the sequence of Carthaginian defeats continued for the next three years.27 Thus by 212 the Scipios had tied up three Carthaginian armies in Spain.28

Despite the setbacks on Sardinia and in Spain, help had now come from an unexpected source. In the spring of 215 an embassy sent by Philip of Macedon had landed at Bruttium and travelled on to Campania to meet with Hannibal and agree a treaty. Polybius claims to reproduce the actual treaty document, a copy of which reportedly fell into Roman hands when a ship carrying both Macedonian and Carthaginian officials was captured on its return to the East. The terms of the treaty bound both sides to protect one another from each other’s enemies, with the explicit understanding that the Macedonians would help the Carthaginians in their war against Rome until final victory had been won.29 Yet it is also clear from the terms that Hannibal was keen to limit Philip’s intervention in the conflict and, overall, to keep the Macedonians out of Italy. Once victory was complete, the terms of Carthage’s peace with Rome would apply to Macedonia also, with Philip gaining Rome’s possessions in Illyria.

The treaty text itself, which appears to have been translated from Punic into Greek by Hannibal’s chancery, shows clear associations with the diplomatic language and conventions that had existed in the Near East for millennia, proving that the Levantine roots of the city still exerted a heavy influence on traditional aspects of state business. Appended to the treaty was a list of Carthaginian gods who acted as divine witnesses to the agreement, organized into three (presumably hierarchical) celestial triads. The identities of these deities, who have been transliterated into the Greek divine canon, have been much debated, but it is now generally thought that the top tier was composed of Baal Hammon, Tanit and Reshef.30 In the second were Astarte, Melqart and Eshmoun, followed by Baal Saphon, Hadad and Baal Malagê in the third.31 What is particularly interesting about this celestial ordering is that it reflects the divine patrons of the city of Carthage, and not of the Barcids.32 When it came to negotiating with Philip, king of one of the most powerful of the Hellenistic kingdoms, even Hannibal’s reputation as a great general was not enough.33 This had to be an alliance between Macedonia and Carthage, hence the presence of three named Carthaginian officials–Mago, Myrcan and Barmocar, who were either members of the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four or part of a special commission appointed by that body–as well as other, unnamed, councillors.34

This treaty was just one of a number of signs that deference to the constitutional bodies of Carthage had come increasingly to replace the autonomy of action that had marked much of Hannibal’s early career. The huge level of financial support that Hannibal received from North Africa in this period demanded the constant involvement of the Carthaginian Council. That support can be ascertained not only from Livy’s report–for example, of the monies given to Mago–but also from the large quantity of high-quality-electrum and silver coinage that was minted in this period, much of it clearly aimed for use in Italy. Carthage itself, by contrast, maintained a bronze and debased-electrum currency system.35 It is striking that it was not until the last years of his time in Italy that Hannibal seems to have produced any coinage himself, meaning that he was relying on booty, promises of pay after victory, and coinage being shipped in from Carthage.36 All of Carthage’s resources were thus thrown at the war effort.

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